August 30th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

New Orleans: Amazing Evacuation

I'm going to break format, and write smaller pieces for a while, to give each idea its own place for discussion.

As Hurricane Katrina was approaching land, one of the things I was worried about was that experts had simulated the evacuation of New Orleans. The professional best case estimate was that, given 72 hours warning, they could evacuate 60% to 65% of the New Orleans metropolitan area. As the winds moved on and officials had their first chance to compare notes, they concluded that in the roughly 60 hours of notice between the evacuation order and landfall, at least 80% of the population successfully evacuated. That's a mind bogglingly amazingly good success story. This evacuation will be studied for generations.

Evacuations are still in progress. Now that the Canal Street Levee has ruptured, there is no longer any meaningful doubt that the city will flood completely; the only remaining question is how deep. They're already making plans to evacuate the emergency shelter at the Superdome because the water has swallowed its first floor, maybe more. They're moving people up and up, and making plans to get them out of there somehow.

Speaking of amazingly good news: the Superdome held. Some of you may have noticed that I certainly had my doubts; I was worried that the very real chance existed that emergency services were packing those people in there to die. The Dome was the first enclosed stadium of its size. People had real doubts about it at the time. As a result, the Dome benefited from the same dynamic that made the DC-3, the first twin-engine metal-bodied jet, the miracle of aviation it was: massive over-engineering, intended to reassure people. Engineers had said that the Dome could survive 200mph winds. On the other hand, as I think it was Chris Matthews who pointed this out right before landfall, the same engineers had predicted that the Twin Towers would survive an impact with a fully loaded major jetliner. The Dome lost at least half of its fabric covering over the roof, and several large metal roof panels, and its primary and backup power, and from some accounts may be losing its plumbing already. But the walls, and nearly all of the roof, survived, and saved thousands of lives. This time, the engineers actually won their bet.

Now, they admit, comes the hard part. With the levees down, it could and probably will be years before the former residents of New Orleans have permanent homes to return to. So some FEMA official, I think it was, announced that they're already drawing up plans to build a long-term refugee camp for at least one million people somewhere in Louisiana. Dear god, I hope not. Long-term refugee centers are disastrous places to live, ask people in central Africa, the Sudan, the Balkans, and occupied Palestine. Even with Red Cross supervision, full-court-press military logistic support, and thousands of dollars per refugee, a refugee camp can't be made truly livable. So I have an idea. I emailed it to a couple of places, and I'm posting it here in hopes of starting buzz. If you like the idea and don't know why it wouldn't work, ask around. A lot.

America's center cities lost one holy heck of a lot more than one million residents in the last forty years. Sure, some of that housing stock has deteriorated, but not all of it. The surviving housing stock is much more solid than any tent can be. It has roads, sanitary sewers, electricity, and running drinking water nearby. There are existing police stations and fire stations. There are existing, mostly empty churches and existing networks of charity for caring for the poor. If we distribute those refugees to various cities around the United States, they won't have jobs waiting for them -- but there won't be jobs in those refugee camps, either. They can live a lot easier off of government relief if they live where the supermarkets are and in homes with kitchens than if they're living in tent cities. The schools will be overloaded ... but given that those cities have schools that they politically can't close and don't have the population to fill, the money that would have gone into building temporary schools can sure as heck stretch farther if all they have to do is hire is more teachers. For the life of me, I can't think of any reason why this can't work.
Brad @ Burning Man

New Orleans: A Weird Thought about Looting

By early this afternoon, the nationwide news had film of people openly looting shops in downtown New Orleans. It made me sick to my stomach. A looter is someone who knows that the cops have higher priorities than preventing felony theft and therefore becomes a felony thief. And, just as happened in the Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict, they didn't even have the decency to hide their faces when the camera crews were filming; they barely had the awareness that what they were doing was wrong to bother to outrun the cops when they finally drove by. When I was growing up, I was taught (perhaps incorrectly) that at times like this, common law recognizes the right and obligation of anybody in law enforcement or the military who sees looting in progress to shoot to kill without warning, and frankly, that always made sense to me. As Niven and Pournelle said in Lucifer's Hammer, a civilization has the morality it can afford. And given that among the structures destroyed are the jail and most police stations, summary justice is the only justice that New Orleans can afford. So part of me was hoping that the cops would indiscriminately open fire on suspected looters.

Then, a few hours later, we found out that the levees between New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain are collapsing. There are already at least two huge holes. One is at least 550 feet wide. The Army Corps of Engineers is trying to dump enough giant sandbags, concrete dividers, and failing that wrecked automobiles and wreckage from houses on top of the breach to plug it, or at least to slow it down. I don't think there's any way this can work. They tried this trick when a saboteur dynamited one of the levees north of here during the Flood of 1993. The resulting hole was less than 1/3 the size. Plugging it didn't work, and the river swallowed everything to the next flood wall. Maybe they learned something from that, and in the intervening 12 years emergency levee repair technology has miraculously improved without them bothering to tell us. But I doubt it.

Then this evening, they admitted that the pumps are down, too, long since out of gasoline for the backup generators and, besides, designed to pump the water the wrong way, back into the Lake instead of into the river or the ocean. At this point, there is no question that New Orleans is going under water. Depending on relative elevation, pretty much the whole city is going to be under at least 6 feet of water, and if the water keeps coming through the breach until the water is level with the Lake, that's 19 or 20 feet.

And so it occurred to me: the stuff that was stolen out of those clothing stores, athletic shoe stores, grocery stores, and drug stores was doomed. The legal owners almost certainly evacuated, and it will be months before they're allowed back to the ruins of their retail properties. Anything that didn't get stolen will have spent at least weeks, and probably months, and maybe even years under 6 to 20 feet of salt water that is tainted with several grades of oil and gasoline, unspeakable amounts of multiple toxic chemicals, rotting corpses of humans and animals both recent and ancient, and extensive fecal matter. And therefore anything that didn't get stolen will never end up anywhere but at the bottom of the Gulf, rotting, or at best in some landfill. Isn't it better that somebody, especially somebody who has already lost everything but the clothes on their backs because of the storm, get some use out of it? So I went back and looked at the CNN and Reuters accounts again. The eyewitness account was from a CNN crew, who described the looters as stealing primarily baby formula, diapers, clothes, and packaged food such as candy. Good! Those people need those things if they're going to survive; we can work out the economics of this later.

Keith Olbermann interviewed a guy by cellphone who had managed to make it out of New Orleans after the storm. Among the things he said was that he hadn't evacuated in advance because he didn't have a car. He said that when he saw that the neighborhood was doomed, he obtained a car after the storm and got out via the only surviving highway, and is returning to his family in California. It occurred to me when he said that to wonder where he "obtained" a car. I noticed that Keith didn't ask. And if he did steal that car from somebody who had left it behind when they evacuated, good for him. He can return their car to them when he gets to California. If anything, he may have done someone a favor by stealing their car; if he had left it where it was parked, it would have been destroyed by tomorrow.

Am I wrong to think these things?